Sunday, May 29, 2005

The Philip Bottenberg Interview


A little more than a year ago, I had an exhibit of Philip Bottenberg's paintings, called Ocean of Intagibles. As with all the artists who exhibit here, we did an interview. Unfortunately, Philip's got buried under some other stuff, and it sorta gathered dust on my hard drive. However, now he's got another exhibit happening, this time at Sandra Goldie's gallery, and I thought it would be appropriate to publish it now. Thanks again to Lauren Wagner for an amazing amount of help with the transcription and editing of it.

If you have time, I highly recommend that you truck down to Ms. Goldie's gallery to see the stuff that Philip's been doing.

Originally conducted on May 18, 2004

Philip Bottenberg: A friend of my mother's came by the show who likes this piece very much, Ruth Auersberg, she used to be an art critic for the Montreal Star, and she's been a friend of the family for a very long time. She's always encouraged me and my art. She came, and she's like 85 years old, and she was almost the only person who said something to me in a analytical manner that I just couldn't answer, she's as sharp as an eagle and she always asks questions very deliberately to make you think.

Zeke: What sort of questions?

Philip Bottenberg: Well she was talking about a lot of things but to me it's the way a question is framed that can make it intimidating. She asked "what do the dots symbolize?" And why are they soft? It was basically about this painting. It was just one of those things about the way it was framed and I was like aaagggghhhhhh, you know? Put another way from somebody else I might have been easily able to come up with a coherent answer, but with her I just froze. But that art critic kind of talk - "what does it represent?"

Zeke: "All I do is slap the paint on the canvas. I don't want to interpret it."

Philip Bottenberg: Sure, it's like paint, it has a personality of its own - she's a good person, but its just funny...

Zeke: OK, let get down to brass tacks. Ocean of Intangibles why did you choose that for the title of the show?

Philip Bottenberg: Well, I had several different titles and I felt that, that one best described the works. Also I thought of the title of the show as not so much representing the works, but representing me; I thought how would I describe my life, the way I see it, I would say that it is an ocean of intangibles. Not in a negative or a positive sense, some of the most important things to us are intangible things; love and hate, things you are afraid of, the things you are attracted to, your successes, your failures, they are all really intangible. They're not necessarily ideals but they are intangible things and at the same time they are some of the most important things to us in life. Also in another way, this is how I see myself; starting my career and what I am facing is an ocean of intangibles, I don't know what is coming my way and that's kind of what being a painter in today's society seems like to me. It's sort of what I seem to be faced with: An ocean of intangibles. It's neither negative or positive, it's just out there, ambiguously.

Zeke: Speaking of the intangibility of a career, what would you see as your goals for an artistic career?

Philip Bottenberg: Well, I was thinking a little it about this last night and it's a bit of a shot in the dark but... I would like to try and make a living and thrive and prosper as a painter. I feel that I've done a good job and I've worked hard and I think that in painting or in anything else; you know, you got to do what you love. Right now, I'm just trying to survive, I'm trying to see if I'm even capable of surviving in this art world. An future goal; to be in museums, to be able to communicate with as many people as I possibly can. This might seem a little funny or odd, but to be kind of a bad boy not like Attila Richard Lukas, but a bad boy in the sense that you're not too... the market relies on an artist's consistency but at the same time it can be very formulaic and your painting can become constrained. I think that it is very true what Irene Whittome said "you always have to look for transformation." Ultimately your final painting should not be exactly like the original sketch there should be some sort of a process that is taking place between the two, so there is a constant evolution of the imagery. I would like, if I'm successful enough, to corner some kind of a market and be able to do my paintings in a similar style to what I'm doing now, but to also break out from that and to prove myself as a portraiture painter; to prove myself as whatever else, a realist painter, maybe a psychotic realism. I don't think that you should have real constraint, you should be able to branch off in whatever direction that you feel, as long as you can... you know if it's good, it's gotta be good, right?

Zeke: Would you say that the next set of paintings that you are doing are taking the next step on this?

Philip Bottenberg: I would hope so.

Zeke: Have you started anything?

Philip Bottenberg: Yeah. I have three or four works, pretty much completed at my studio now. Some large ones. In terms of color they are very similar to these, but in the composition and just dealing with the planes it's much more flat. Not so much depth and stuff, but I'm dealing with different collage elements. There is a lot of direction I can go, but at the same time it's a constant job of editing and I try to find what it is within here that I am going to carry through, but I never see them as a complete series with a definite beginning and an end; all the paintings kind of go into one another. For me there's not a clear break anywhere. But yeah I would like to move around and especially now that I'm not known or successful or anything.

Zeke: You're getting there

Philip Bottenberg: I'm getting there but I have a chance now to move around. Like I said if you can prove yourself; I don't think that you have to be a landscape painter or a portrait painter, you're just a painter. It's a challenge to do different things, why be stagnant?

Zeke: Along that line, pick any painting, can explain to me where you got the inspiration for it and almost a step by step process of how you went about painting it.

Philip Bottenberg: Okay well...some of them would be much easier than others; like I can choose that one Olympia you know it's sort of an easy ways way out of me to explain how that's very much an homage to Ross Bleckner, to be specific; a New York artist he does semi-abstract work, I won't try to talk too much about his work but it's very much a homage to him, a tribute in a way. In that sense, it's more about emulation; so maybe it's not the best one to really talk about... but we could take the one in the corner, if you want to try that one.

Olympia by Philip Bottenberg, 48" x 48" Oil on Canvas

Zeke: Sounds cool.

Philip Bottenberg: That's from a photograph. Often the starting point is an image, quite often it's a sketch, but that one is a photograph that I took. it was a frosted window pane in my apartment and through the sky in the horizon through the window pane.

December 22, 2004 by Philip Bottenberg, 48" x 48" Oil on Canvas

Zeke: I never would have guessed that.

Philip Bottenberg: No, of course not cause that's the whole thing that it has gone through a lot of changes and the photograph itself was, I hesitate to use this word but beautiful, but I found it really attractive and it looked like one of my paintings already completed. Which is where the problem kind of lies, because the photo in itself is good enough and to emulate it, that's the whole sort of thing I don't do.... why right now I'm not really painting portraits; I'm trying to find other ways to paint, cause I feel constrained and it's too much of a... it's not that the challenge is not acceptable but it's too restraining to feel that you are always trying to live up to reality.

Zeke: Although as opposed to trying to live up to reality because you are using a photograph, you can end up focusing on different things, and sort of basing it on reality but then changing it. At which point you're directing people's ideas and thoughts through your use of the medium.

Philip Bottenberg: Yeah and the use of a different medium requires a different sort of... I mean reality itself is funny word because everything that I am depicting is a reality, and then there are inner realities that are no less valid than the outside realities that simply that… and then the title too, Ocean of Intangibles. Cause people largely seem to find art work much more palatable when there is something very tangible in it for them to grasp on. For me, looking at paintings, that's no longer what I'm looking for, I'm looking for something more intangible.

Zeke: But I find that with your paintings there is something... like last night I had this guy come in and say "I see a face in that! Am I psychotic and I tripping out on something?" and I said "no" but there are different things that different people see, and three different people will have three different ideas.

Philip Bottenberg: Yeah that's very important to me, the ambiguity and the suggestiveness rather than being overt; being subtle rather than abrasive and in your face. I do believe that there is a lot of power in suggestion. That ideas can stay in the back of your mind, and then you mull them over without realizing it, and you come to your own conclusions and in the end, they make you think. That is something that I want very much in my paintings. If 50 people are able to see 50 different things in one painting then I, in a way, I have achieved my goal; it's a hard thing to explain but it's really what I am trying to do.

Zeke: Getting back to the question, starting with photograph, the step by step process that you go through.

Philip Bottenberg: I can give you the technical mixed in with a little of what actually went on. I had the photo, the photo was in a rectangular format very small. I started off knowing that a transformation will take place, whether I want it to or not. I don't just take a photo and then the painting ends up like the photo. It's not that that is a very interesting way of painting. Some of my favorite artists today paint that way. But for me, I start off with something realistic, I start off with what the background colors will be; knowing that I was going to cover it over in white and that would alter the color in a certain way. You're trying to exert a little control over things, with glazing and colors you are predicting in advance a little bit, what the effect is going to be. That's basically what I did with that one. I did the background and I put on the white later, a little bit sloppily if you ask me. I was at that point trying to break away from the photo a little bit and I was realizing that the photo really worked on its own as it was and it was… you know it didn't have to be... but it's the trigger and it's the starting point for the final piece. I finished the white glaze and I left it and I simply compared it with the photo for a long time, like over a month, and at a certain point I just decided that it was finished and then I varnished it and it was only afterwards that I decided that I wasn't happy with it, that I was not proud of it as a painting. That it hadn't gone far enough away from the photo to become something else. At which point I started layering greens and blues and a brown and finally a black up at the top and down in the corners, which alters it completely from what it originally was.

Zeke: So basically, you lay down the background, put on the white, said okay I think that this is finished, put down the varnish, then you went back over it, at which point would you be working with just one color at a time and then letting that dry; or would you be working with... you said that you went back.

Philip Bottenberg: It's several colors at a time, but one layer; usually that is the way that I work. So for the background it's ochre, fallow, an ultra-marine blue and umber and some burnt sienna but in any case, it's all a mixture and a blending of all of them together and I try not to have them, especially in this one... I try to really have them blend, so that there is no concrete... anything tangible for anyone to hold on to, and so I cover the entire surface and I wait for it to dry. Then once it's dry I go on with my next surface which, in this case would have been the white. In some of the paintings, like the first one around the corner there's 17 glazes and I just kept going back... and you have to let it dry and...

Zeke: Is that the one with the most layers, or?

Philip Bottenberg: I think so yeah. Around the corner Cepheus I think I called it.

Cepheus by Philip Bottenberg, 48" x 48" Oil on Canvas

Zeke: Then what is the one with the least amount of layers?

Philip Bottenberg: Quite possibly Olympia. Some of them, if you start out with a sketch or an image and then the painting just comes to life right away and then it's done. The best thing that you can do is just step back and leave it, and accept the fact that it didn't take you two months like you thought it would but it actually only took you three hours; but other ones can take a very long time. It's one of those things, the longer you take the better a job you can do, and that is what oil paint is really about. That's what that medium lends to that quality of time.

Zeke: Walking through the show, how do I phrase this in terms of... I'm not looking to get you to describe the paintings to me per se, although that would not be bad, but in a nutshell if you could go around the room and describe to me your relative level of happiness with each painting. I recognize that obviously you are happy with everything here, because if you weren't, it wouldn't be here. However I do recognize, like the one by my desk...

Neptune by Philip Bottenberg, 48" x 48" Oil on Canvas (if I remember correctly it was behind my desk during the show)

What is it that makes your level of contentment with the painting higher or lower, or i.e. if you could pick out the things that make that one particularly spectacular to you and why that one where you're think okay I could've done better next time.

Philip Bottenberg: Well I think that on a very basic level, I'm never really content with any of them; and I never have been and that is why I'll always be painting. It's not like manic depression or anything, and yes I am happy with these paintings on a very sort of basic level. I'm more content with the more recent ones that I have done, just because they are the most recent ones and the experience is still lingering of having finished them. So those for me would be the one in the corner.

September 13, 2003 by Philip Bottenberg, 48" x 48" Oil on Canvas

I work in isolation a lot and when I come out and have people see my work, if they respond a lot to one work it might very much encourage me that that work is the greatest one. For example with this show... when we had the vernissage a lot of people commented on the cloud one there and in a sense that is not necessarily my favorite one, but I'm definitely thinking about producing more in a similar fashion.

March 30, 2004 by Philip Bottenberg, 24" x 24" Oil on Canvas

Zeke: But that's never going to get 50 people to think 50 different things.

Philip Bottenberg: No it won't, and it 's also funny that it is the most tangible piece in the entire show, and it's the one that most people respond to, which I could of guessed. As far as the level of contentment, when I surprise myself and I challenge myself and I have surpassed what I have expected and that's a hard...

Zeke: So these are the ones that, you would say that you are surprised with?

Philip Bottenberg: Really, as for my level of highest contentment of anything in the show it might be actually the one that Tommy bought and it's very hard to explain why, but it's simply... it has more to do with the temperate qualities of the colors rather than the composition or anything, and the way that it is laid out and that might be my favorite. It's hard to explain why, it's also to me one of the most minimal and that to me is achieving the most, with not the least effort but.... you know... efficiency. It's funny too, because each different painting can lead you on a different path, for example one of the ones that are most influencing to me now would be that one of there. In the way that the dots are layered, that the patches of color have been layered over one another created a very interesting effect that is not going on so much in the other paintings, and although it is a very small format; for me what it is for me a maquette for ideas for large paintings to see if that technique would work or if I could achieve something. That for me is definitely something that I have been thinking about now that I have to do more with the oil paint because I haven't I feel been doing that enough; but there is a whole technique to doing that... there's glazing and then there is glazing.

December 13, 2003 by Philip Bottenberg, 24" x 24" Oil on Canvas

Zeke: There is that one and then this one which I've been calling "a speed painting" which both have a sense of movement to them, everything else that you have here is pretty much static, the ones with the movement in them the most engaging and the most fun to me. I also like very much sitting out here sometimes cause I realize that while you're talking I'm realizing, that it is the one which I see the least, just because of the position of my desk and stuff like that, and realizing that moving around the room gives you a completely different perspective on stuff.

October 15, 2003 by Philip Bottenberg, 48" x 48" Oil on Canvas

Philip Bottenberg: That is something that attracts me very much about the varnish is that it becomes a bit of a game when you move around the painting and the angle that you are looking at can reveal more than...

Zeke: Although to my mind, varnish per se doesn't give you a sense of movement and stuff like that, it sort of adds to it in layers. Almost like you are putting a pane of glass and watching something as opposed to being actively engaged in it.

Philip Bottenberg: Yeah that's an interesting point, that a lot of people talk about, and that Matthew Woodley mentioned in the review, that other artists also talk about a lot and that maybe… for example I mentioned Ross Bleckner at the beginning. He speaks about the paint being like a skin and then, yeah it's interesting that you can see it that way that the varnish is very much keeping you out, like a skin, which is maybe, but not necessarily why I was using it.

Zeke: You can say skin, you can say sort of like a glass, distancing somehow. And then back to concrete things, in terms of the show itself, I recognize that you had certain expectations, some hopefully were exceeded, I'm fairly certain that there didn't' come to fruition and so on. What can I do to make this place better, specifically using your show as the example.

Philip Bottenberg: I don't know if I could specifically speak about the show. I recognize that I really came back to the earth and realized why I was doing the show and what was I expecting from the beginning and realized this really actually... everything is going the way that I... maybe I wanted to sell every single work but I'm achieving what I set out to achieve; and that has a lot to do with a cv and stuff like that. In terms of you and the gallery I would like to say that it doesn't so much have to do with my show but I really do believe in what you're doing and what you're doing here helps emerging artists, but I feel that it is a little bit of a clique in Montreal, that the same artists circulate and it's very hard for new artists to get in on that. That what you provide is absolutely essential and if you weren't doing this somebody else would have to. Yeah I definitely think that what you are doing here is... I'm surprised almost in a way that you're the only one that is approaching it like this; more people should be able to see that this kind of thing is needed. Having said that I think that you've also cornered yourself a little bit in the market in a particular way in that by only exhibiting artists who have never had a solo show before and that there can only be, like I'll put it quite bluntly, there is only so much money you can ask for, there is only a certain clientele that's coming and this and that. It's funny, I wouldn't know so much how to advise you, I also think that you should have more people help, you need a team of people with you, that are consistently with you and then... but you need that to run a gallery, you can't do it all by yourself and I think that you probably realize that now. You probably realized that for a very long time, so you don't need me to tell you that. More essentially I think you've cornered yourself a bit in the market. It is a very important thing that you are doing, but at the same time... it seems so altruistic. I don't know it's funny. Like I said before I want to work hard at doing something good and be able to make a living off of it and I think that that is essentially what you want.

Zeke: Yeah, realizing that after 6 years, I am apart of the establishment here, which on one hand scares the hell out of me cause I've never wanted to be a part of the establishment. On the other hand pleases me to no end just because...

Philip Bottenberg: But you have to be within the establishment to change it though.

Zeke: Not necessarily, you can come at it from the outside.

Philip Bottenberg: To some degree, some of the changes that you can make will be more effective; but it's like the power of suggestion can sometimes get more done than the overt or abrasive way, so it's just a different way... but I think that it's very important, what you are doing here and in a way, you know, I've been painting for so many years and this is my first solo exhibition. I had my first vernissage, so my hopes were very high, too high and a little unrealistic but I was actually very happy with the outcome. You know in the end things could have been much worse and they really aren't so bad. So essentially yeah, I'm fairly happy, it's not bad... I've spoken with other artists and I've heard some really crazy stories, some very terrible stories about the experiences that they've had, which makes this look like a piece of pie compared to some things I've heard. But a neighbor of mine, who is an artist who does small works told me what vernissages are really about; it's your friends and family. But it depends as well, cause it's the very first. You know that the very first time I came here, I had actually looked for this place several times and just passed by because I never bothered to look up the address, but I was just in the neighborhood and I came here with Kate and you had that woman's work, she was doing her masters at Concordia they were large white...

Zeke: Oh yes, Martha Fleury

Philip Bottenberg: And she used the eraser, you know based on that I came here and I found this place and I was very very interested because it was the work that you chose to exhibit that brought me in.

A girl, by Martha Fleury, 54" X 24" charcoal and acrylic on canvas

Zeke: Cool. Are there any questions, since we are recording, that you would like me to ask you?

Philip Bottenberg: Ummm, No

Zeke: Okay are there any questions you want to ask me?

Philip Bottenberg: No, not too much, I think that everything else is all good.

Zeke: Thank you very much, that was fun.

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